Saturday, March 26, 2011

No Dog in the Fight

Granted, the best way to indicate not having a dog in the fight might be to not post anything at all on the topic of Rob Bell and heresy. However, I've read enough buzz and news concerning Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, to at least want to write something simple in response. So, if you've heard of the book, or read it, or have at least a passing interest in universalism, heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, then here are a few choice words, intentionally brief, on the topic.

1. The dude knows how to wear clothes. Whenever I watch one of his Nooma videos, I want to run right out and buy glasses like his, or figure out how to get one of his sweaters at deep discount. In fact, most of the time, I'm so focused on the clothes and the style I have trouble attending to the substance. Anyone else experience this?

2. And he has a great video production team. I'm jealous. He released a promotional video for his book. You can learn tons about how to produce beautiful video that also conveys a theological message by watching it and the Nooma series.

3. He pastors a very big church. Very big. So any reactions people are having to Rob Bell's book are also probably caught up in some kind of envy. Maybe not everybody, but it's at least worth pointing out.

4. Now, on to the theology proper. The reason I say I don't have a dog in the fight is because Lutherans (or at least the kind of Lutheranism to which I subscribe and confess) simply doesn't think about salvation and heaven and hell in the way the evangelical world does. I think, as far as I can tell, that the debate around Rob Bell centers in some classic Calvinist predestinarian assumptions about who is in and out of heaven or hell, and all of this connects to the specific kind of atonement theory that informs each of those who either criticizes or supports Bell. There's probably something in the debate around covenantal theology or a few other categories I simply don't follow, so I admit that I may have missed something.

Some of the debate is related to rather ham-handed interpretations of Scripture itself, but I think we can simply gloss those and not worry about them.

Some of the debate is over what is central in the Christian tradition from the early church. Since Origen was declared a heretic, his universalism (with which I resonate; caveat, inasmuch as I am a universalist, I am a Trinitarian universalist of the Origenist or Barthian persuasion, but more of that anon) simply hasn't been an option. But again, that would be a separate essay about the development of universalist options in the history of the confession of the church.

But Lutherans shouldn't get caught up in the debate, at least not in most of the ways the debate is currently being conducted, and for the following reasons.

1) We aren't universalists precisely, because that is simply to say that God elects everyone, and it's awfully difficult to say that in light of the Scriptures.

2) We aren't into free will. We don't even think you can "believe" of your own free will (see Luther's explanation of the third article of the creed in the Small Catechism). So, although we aren't universalists, we also don't believe heaven and hell divides out between those who choose Jesus and so are saved, and all those other unlucky persons who either didn't choose Jesus or never heard of him.

3) We aren't interested in predestination. That's to attempt to peer into the sovereign (another tricky word we seldom use) will of God, and whenever you try to take a look at the hidden God, watch out.

4) We preach election. If you wonder whether you are saved or not, let me say to you again, "You are justified by faith in Christ." Then, the very word you hear has power because it is the word of God, and creates faith (in the Spirit) where there wasn't faith. Which is to say, the solution to the problem of the fate of every person on earth is to preach the gospel. God's word will really do something. If you ask, What about those who haven't heard the gospel yet? I ask in response, Why don't you go tell them they are just, for Jesus' sake? I bet they'd love a bit of good news.

To which you say, But are they saved? To which I say, Why don't you go tell them they are. Better yet, why don't we go together and tell them!

Of course, following this initial assertion, there is plenty more to talk about, and ask questions concerning. But I think you can see how this changes the terms of the debate. Although it isn't expressed in quite the same way Bell expresses, or doubted in quite the same way his doubters doubt him, nevertheless, it does indicate that him getting out and preaching, and taking it to a live audience, is itself not unlike what Lutherans should do, even if we theologize differently.

We're walking different dogs, but I think in the same dog park.


  1. I'm tired and shouldn't be commenting (I should be sleeping), but I'd like you to get deeper into your point #1, at the bottom of your post. In Bell's book, he uses Scripture to rebut the notion that only some are elected by God. He even quotes Luther on the matter, where Luther is glad to entertain a bit of uncertainty on the matter of hell. Suddenly, the elect/unelect dichotomy is revealed as imprecise and inadequate.

    Also, your point #4 is very Lutheran (nothing wrong with that, of course) and bordering on the formulaic (slightly more problematic). I'm beginning to question our "high" view of preaching in the Lutheran church, wondering if it all works out just as nicely as you (and many faithful Lutherans) suggest. I was reading the introduction to a collection of Foerde's essays on preaching, and throughout the margins of the introduction I wrote question marks, asking if preaching really does what we say it does. I have my questions ...

    Well, more to talk about at another time. I - we - have long days before us tomorrow.

    Thanks for this post. Peace.

  2. Excellent post - thanks for your thoughts. I think part of what is going on is the American desire to put people in categories - these are in - these are out. We should all carefully consider the Lenten Gospels which are all mostly about in and out and that the folks who think there are in are really out and the folks who we want to exclude are really in. I think some humility is in order. Ultimately those decisions are not our department - we are called to be faithful. Blessings...

  3. Thanks, Blake. You're right, the whole issue of plurality, in and out, enters Scripture at so many points (especially in the Gospel of John) only to be paradoxically turned inside out. Blessings to you as well, and thanks for the comment.

  4. As usual this is an insightful post Clint. I agree with your assessment of the situation and our relative detachment from this battle. Ideally Lutherans would simply ignore the hoopla surrounding Bell's book because it really isn't our fight, but in reality our members and our culture are shaped by evangelical theology. It's interesting how easily theological concepts like free will become part of our the vocabulary of our members and those with no Church affiliation.

    In some ways this is good because it makes it more difficult for us to remain parochial, as we Lutherans are sometimes tempted to do. It also forces us to think about how we might address theological questions that originate outside of our tradition but nonetheless influence our parishioners and the broader culture.

    The question that Bell poses in his promo video is "how do we reconcile a good and gracious God with one who condemns some to hell"? I think that's a good question, and one that is on the minds of many whom we seek to invite into our communities.

    I also agree with you about his clothes...I mean, where does this guy shop? Does he have an image consultant? I need to get one of those :)

  5. great! was waiting for this. I wasn't using your fancy terms, but insofar as I lean toward Universalism, I suspect it would be the "Trinitarian/Barthian" variety (at least based on my own description, on my own blog.)

    I read his book, quickly, too.

    I will say that what he's doing (as well) is asking a lot of questions. People who like to have all the answers have a problem with that.

  6. Wonderful post, Clint. Our weekly book group just started reading Love Wins and I'll be sharing this with them the next time we meet. Thanks.

  7. Rob Bell is, if nothing else, pretty amazing at putting his finger on the pulse of what interests people. And/or he causes the pulse.

  8. And I don't mean that as a criticism. He's good at being a positive contributor to larger conversations.

  9. I really appreciate your casting light on the different paradigms from which folks approach the debate and especially your demonstration of a Lutheran approach. Very helpful. The only thing I'm not sure about is your thought that "the debate around Rob Bell centers in some classic Calvinist predestinarian assumptions" and that there's "probably something in the debate around covenantal theology." I say that because I inherited a lot of those categories and still tend to assume them by default - not holding them as rigidly as fire-breathing TRs ("truly Reformed") or new "converts" to the "Reformed faith" but nonetheless appreciating the well-worn grooves they've established in my thinking - and yet I don't have major objections or gut-level aversions to the summaries I've read of Bell's book. That may just be me, but I thought I'd throw it out there for what it's worth.

  10. Thanks, Jon. I'm near but not of the reformed tradition and so there are parts of it I tend to mis-hear or fail to understand, so I appreciate the clarification!